Ed and the tuition fees problem

September 25, 2011 1:18 pm

UniversityBy Wes Streeting / @wesstreeting

Labour’s priority is to reduce the cost of going to university. The Tories and Lib Dems’ priority is a tax cut for the banks. That’s the dividing line that has emerged today following Ed Miliband’s announcement that Labour would cut tuition fees to £6,000 tomorrow by reversing George Osborne’s corporation tax cut for banks.

As a starter for ten, this is a smart political move by the Labour leader in addressing what I call ‘Ed’s university challenge’. During the leadership election, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls signalled their unease about Labour’s tuition fees policy since 1997, with both men committing to a graduate tax as the preferred alternative. When the coalition hiked fees up to £9,000 last year they went further, faster, than any of us who had been heavily involved in the issue higher education funding had predicted. Ed Miliband’s position during the leadership contest meant that the Labour Party, essentially, got away with opposing the fees hike without having a costed position of our own.

Having already distanced himself from Labour’s approach in government, he enjoyed more wriggle room in opposition. Tory counter attacks about Labour’s commitment to tuition fees in government and the lack of a costed alternative were lost amidst the deafening noise of public opposition, student riots and outrage at the spineless treachery of the Liberal Democrats.

Three or four years out from a general election is a tough time for any opposition. Making solid manifesto commitments is difficult due to the lack of certainty about the fiscal position you may inherit and the real politik of not wanting to give too much away before the campaign gets into full swing. The absence of a cast iron alternative leaves oppositions open to charges of opportunism and a lack of credibility. Setting out a costed alternative on tuition fees that the Government could implement tomorrow sends a clear signal about Labour’s priorities and those of the blue and yellow Tories running the country: do voters want a government that backs Britain’s next generation with a fees cut or one that gives a tax cut to the banks.

Some Labour Party members have expressed their concern that Ed Miliband has junked the graduate tax position he took when he asked for their votes during the leadership contest, but they have mistaken a proposal that could be implemented tomorrow with a manifesto commitment for the next election. In media interviews and briefings, the leader and his office have made it clear that if we can do more – and go further – at the next general election, we will. By asking wealthier graduates in the top 10% of earners to pay more as part of Labour’s package, Miliband’s team argue that this is a step in the right direction and a further stride towards graduate tax principles.

The tuition fees problem – and with it ‘Ed’s university challenge’ – remains. Even under the government’s system, graduates may not pay anything like £9,000 for their tuition, but the ‘sticker price’ nonetheless remains, like an albatross around the necks of talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Only last night a Cambridge don revealed to me his concerns about fair access whilst another told me that once she explained the repayment mechanism, it allayed many of the fears that had been generated by the prospect of £9,000 fees.

A graduate tax is fairer because those who earn more pay more, but it also removes a serious psychological hurdle for those students and families who are more debt averse. The short term position set out by Miliband today – which would make an immediate difference to students and their families – must not evolve into a long term acceptance of the current system and Labour Party members are right to keep up the pressure for Labour to go further and work up further alternatives. Reversing entirely the coalition’s disastrous approach will not be cheap nor easy nor even top of the agenda next to things like reinstating the Education Maintenance Allowance and the closure of Sure Start Centres. It must remain firmly on Labour’s agenda, however.

Today, on the airwaves, in print and on the doorstep, we’ve got a clear message and an alternative that could be implemented tomorrow. The coalition would rather help the banks that gambled away the futures of the generation that Labour is trying to help. This is a strong opening for Labour in Liverpool and a fairer alternative for students and their families.

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